prohibition in various forms has been in place for over 100 years
now, its historical roots traceable back to the temperance movement.
This punitive criminal justice-led approach, premised on the understandable
but simplistic concept that drugs are a threat, therefore we must
fight them, and thence that drugs are bad, therefore we must prohibit
them, was enshrined as global policy under the UN single convention
on drugs 1961. The UK’s domestic response was the Misuse of
Drugs Act 1971, which, 39 years on, remains the central plank of
UK drug policy.
For a policy that has the very specific aim of creating a ‘drug-free’
society, criminalising drug production, supply and possession has
been a remarkable failure on its own terms. Consistently under the
legislation, use and related harms have risen, drugs have become
cheaper and more available, and illicit production has easily met
the growing demand.
Worse still, this policy approach, (one that we must remember is
fantastically and increasingly expensive), has delivered a series
of catastrophic consequences associated with the sprawling international
illicit trade controlled by violent criminal entrepreneurs, now
turning over in the region of $300 billion each year, around five
billion pounds a year in the UK alone.
The criminal justice community, despite sitting centre stage amidst
this unfolding legal and policy disaster, has been remarkably unengaged
in the reform debate, the occasional outspoken individuals rarely
if ever matched by any concerted efforts by the many professional
bodies in the field. This silence is no longer a tenable position;
it gives tacit support for a demonstrably failing policy and legal
infrastructure. Prohibition is not immutable; it is a policy choice.
On the domestic front this prohibition-fuelled crime has placed
an intolerable burden on all tiers of the criminal justice system.
The prisons crisis - with over half of prisoners inside for drug,
or drug-related offending – being the most high profile, but
the same stress being carried through the police, courts and probation
The vast sums generated by the illicit trade, particularly in producer
and transit countries, are frequently used to corrupt state institutions,
police, judiciary, and politics, as well as providing a ready source
of funding for armed insurgency (fuelling civil war in Colombia
for example) and terrorism (most obviously the Taliban) that can
in turn become a very real domestic UK threat.
It is vital not to forget that our domestic response to drugs, not
the use of drugs per se, is inadvertently helping to destabilise
countries across the world. Widespread human rights abuses and environmental
destruction in sensitive ecosystems can be added to litany of prohibition’s
disastrous secondary consequences.
Much of this analysis will be of little surprise – there is
a growing consensus that the ‘War on Drugs’ has been
a counterproductive failure. In the UK we have seen a succession
of thoughtful and detailed analysis emerging form high level policy
forums highlighting precisely this including: The Police Foundation
(2000), The Home Affairs Select Committee (2002), The Prime Minister’s
Strategy Unit Drugs Report (2003), The Royal Society of Arts (2006),
The UKDPC (2007).
A historical stumbling block in the debate has been the fact that
no clear vision of a post prohibition world has been available.
The question ‘how would it work?’ has thus been met
with a lack of clarity, with myths and misrepresentations filling
Transform Drug Policy Foundation argues the choice is clear; drug
markets can remain in the hands of organised criminals and street
dealers or they can be controlled and regulated by the government.
There is no third option under which there are no drugs in society.
Therefore we must choose the policy approach that delivers the best
outcomes from our limited criminal justice and public health resources;
in terms of minimising harms associated with drug production supply
and use. The evidence from the failure of prohibition demands that
we meaningfully explore the options for legal regulation.
Transform has now produced a detailed discussion of how the legal
regulation of drug markets could operate, proposing specific models
for a range of currently illicit drug products, and providing the
rationale behind them.
‘After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’ considers
the menu of options for controls over products (dosage, preparation,
price and packaging), vendors (licensing, vetting and training requirements),
outlets (location, outlet density, appearance), who has access (age
controls, licensed buyers) and where and when drugs can be consumed.
It then rationally explores options for different drugs and different
using populations to suggest the regulatory models that will deliver
the best outcomes on key health and wellbeing indicators. Lessons
are drawn from successes and failings with alcohol and tobacco regulation
in the UK and beyond, as well as controls over pharmaceutical drugs
and other risky products and activities that are regulated by government.
Moves toward legal regulation of drug markets would naturally be
phased in cautiously over a number of years, with close evaluation
and monitoring of impacts and any unintended consequences. A flexible
range of regulatory tools would also be applied differentially across
the spectrum of products, with the more restrictive controls deployed
for more risky drugs or drug preparations, and, less restrictive
controls for lower risk products. If implemented intelligently such
an approach holds the potential to not only reduce harms associated
with patterns of consumption as they currently exist but, in the
longer term to encourage patterns of use to move towards safer products,
safer behaviours, and safer using environments – the precise
opposite of what has happened under prohibition.
Five basic models are proposed; medical prescription and
supervised using venues for the highest risk drugs and most problematic
users; a specialist pharmacist sales model, combined with named/licensed
user access and volume sales rationing for mid-risk drugs, such
as amphetamines, powder cocaine, and ecstasy; various forms of licensed
retail, and licensed premises for sale and consumption (familiar
with pubs and Dutch-style cannabis coffee shops); and unlicensed
sales for the least risky products such as caffeine drinks, or coca
Regulation cannot produce a drug free world or indeed a harm free
world – in the short term it can only seek to reduce the problems
that stem from prohibition and the illicit trade it has created.
Neither can it address the underlying drivers of problematic drug
use although it is argued it would create a far better environment
for doing so in the future, by removing political obstacles and
moving to a more rational evidence-based footing, and by freeing
up limited drug-policy resources for proven public health interventions.
Unfortunately, as the sacking (as ACMD chair) of Professor David
Nutt shows, there remains resistance from some politicians to accept
evidence of what actually works and an unwillingness to engage in
this debate. We believe the way forward is through the UK Government
commissioning a comprehensive Impact Assessment of the Misuse of
Drugs Act 1971 (MDA). An Impact Assessment would compare the economic,
social and environmental costs and benefits of current policy, and
all the alternatives, at the national level, and the UN should carry
out a similar exercise at international level to incorporate impacts
on producer and transit countries.
To ensure this process is one behind which everyone genuinely interested
in evidence-based policy can unite, the alternatives modelled need
to range from stepping up prohibition, leaving things as they are,
through Portuguese-style decriminalisation, to legal regulation,
for which Blueprint could be a guide. In the UK, it is now a statutory
requirement for all new legislation to undergo an Impact Assessment
before it comes before Parliament, but this was not the case when
the MDA was enacted. As we stated during a private meeting with
the Prime Minister, we believe it is time to correct that anomaly.
Of course, the devil is in the detail and inevitably different social
environments will require different approaches in response to the
specific challenges they face. The book does not seek to provide
all the answers – but rather to move the debate beyond ‘should
we end the drug war?’ to ’what will the world look like
after the war on drugs’? Criminal Justice professionals who
work daily on the coal face of the drug war, and who can bear witness
to its consequences at first hand, represent a vital expert voice
of reason in this debate, and we hope this book will provide a basis
for more proactive engagement. Please contact us to find out more.
‘After the War on Drugs; Blueprint for Regulation’ available
in hard copy or free pdf download from www.tdpf.org.uk